Scripture and the Liturgy

Are We a Fruitful Vineyard? 27th Sun

Are We a Fruitful Vineyard?  Readings for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The past several Sundays we have been reading from the vineyard parables of Jesus in Matthew, and this Sunday we reach a climactic point in the hostility between the leaders of the people (chief priests and Pharisees) and Jesus.

The Readings for this Lord’s Day are skillfully chosen to complement the Gospel reading.  Most commentators agree that the vine parables of the Old Testament found in Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80 are the textual background for Jesus’ own vineyard parable in Matt 21:33-43.

1. The First Reading gives us Isaiah 5:1-7, the key prophetic parable that identifies the “vineyard” as God’s people Israel.  Although we have not read it in the liturgy until this Sunday, this passage of Isaiah has been in the background through Jesus’ other vineyard parables in the last several weeks:

Reading 1 Is 5:1-7

Let me now sing of my friend,
my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside;
he spaded it, cleared it of stones,
and planted the choicest vines;
within it he built a watchtower,
and hewed out a wine press.
Then he looked for the crop of grapes,
but what it yielded was wild grapes.

Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes,
did it bring forth wild grapes?
Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard:
take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled!
Yes, I will make it a ruin:
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
but overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds
not to send rain upon it.
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!

The themes of this song from Isaiah have important connections with the Song of Songs.  The word translated “friend” in our Mass version is literally “my beloved,” in Hebrew dowdi or didi, which is the preferred term the bride uses for the royal bridegroom in the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is also full of vineyard imagery; in fact, the vineyard/garden is often identified with the bride herself: she is a vineyard/garden.  “A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed!” (Song 4:12).  “Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruit” (Song 4:16).

Thus, the poem in Isaiah 5:1-7, understood in light of broader Scriptural themes, is a love story.  The vineyard is a metaphor for the spouse of the Lord, his beloved people.  Ultimately it points forward to the Bride of Christ.

The use of the term “beloved” (dowdi) both in Isaiah and Songs lends itself to a Messianic reading of these passages, since “my beloved” (dowdi) sounds virtually the same as “my David.” “David” (dawid) literally means “beloved one.”  Thus one can see how easy it is to understand the “beloved” in these passages as the “David” that Israel is awaiting (see Ezek 34:23), that is, the Anointed Son of David who can save them.

P. The Responsorial Psalm also combines the themes of the vineyard-people of God and the royal Son of David:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20

R. (Is 5:7a) The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
A vine from Egypt you transplanted;
you drove away the nations and planted it.
It put forth its foliage to the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
R. The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Why have you broken down its walls,
so that every passer-by plucks its fruit,
The boar from the forest lays it waste,
and the beasts of the field feed upon it?
R. The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted
the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
R. The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
O LORD, God of hosts, restore us;
if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.
R. The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.

Here, Israel is again likened to a vine that God transplanted from Egypt to Canaan.  God has then punished vineyard-Israel, but the Psalm implores him to come to their aid. 

Verses 15-16 are key: “Look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine … and the son of man whom you made strong for yourself.”

This “son of man” is none other that the royal Son of David who sat on the throne of Israel at the time the psalm was composed.  Later in the psalm (verse 18) he is referred to as “the man on your right”: “May your hand be with the man on your right” (v. 18).  This is an apt expression, since the Temple, the throne of God, lay to the north of the royal palace, the throne of David, so that the Son of David literally sat “at the right” (i.e. to the south) of God.  (Directions were expressed facing east: “left” was north, “right” was south.)

Psalm 80 is a prayer for God to protect vineyard-Israel, but also the royal Son of David.  In fact, the fate of Israel and of the royal son are united and inextricable.

2. In the Second Reading we continue our lectio continua through Philippians:

Reading 2 Phil 4:6-9

Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.

St. Paul exhorts us here to ponder “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, etc.”  It is a list similar to the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23.  Using the vineyard analogy given to us in the other readings, we can say that St. Paul wishes us to envision the Fruit of the Spirit, so that we may also bear these Fruit.  What we contemplate, we emulate.  That is why Our Lord teaches in the Sermon on the Mount: “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness!” (Matt 6:22-23). 

Obviously Our Lord is not speaking in a physical sense, as if our eyes shed light within our torsos or somesuch.  Rather, Our Lord is speaking about what we focus our attention upon, what we meditate upon, and as embodied creatures, the focus of our attention is almost invariably tied up with what we physically observe with our eyes.

Some years ago, there was a spat in the little corner of the social media universe where I sometimes timidly venture over whether it is appropriate for Catholics to watch The Game of Thrones.  I never saw the show: the way it was marketed alone gave me a bad feeling and I stayed away.  I’ve heard that it has portrayed graphic sexuality and even violent sexuality, essentially rape.  I won’t comment on the show, but I do object to the graphic portrayal of immorality as a form of entertainment.  And let us be clear: it is sinful for followers of Christ voluntarily to watch depictions of grave evil without a sufficiently grave reason.  Sure, soldiers, doctors, first responders, law enforcement often need to look evil in the face for the good of society. If that is your vocation in life, you can call on the grace of God to help you bear it with a clear conscience. But the rest of us don’t need to watch evil for the sake of entertainment.  It can skew our conscience, derail our inner peace, arouse carnal desires (concupiscence), desensitize our conscience, and eventually deaden our natural revulsion for evil.  Both St. Paul and Jesus himself urge us rather to contemplate the Good, to make that the object of our meditation.  This is why we celebrate the feast days of the Saints and not the great apostates, not even to take warning from them.  Evil is like a tarbaby that is difficult to encounter without getting it all over oneself.  St. Josemaria—who, as a survivor of the Spanish Civil War and of street ministry in the slums of Madrid, was not a sheltered individual by any possible stretch of the imagination—used to say, “I never speak of impurity, but of purity, because Christ is speaking to all of us when he says: ‘Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.’”

So let us take this Second Reading to heart, and exercise the classic Catholic practice of “custody of the eyes”, such that we exercise care over what we put before our gaze.

G. The Gospel passage is the last of the vineyard-themed parables recorded by Matthew:

Gospel Mt 21:33-43

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him,
“He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

The basic meaning of the parable is clear: the tenants are the chief priests and leaders of the people.  The servants sent to the vineyard are the prophets; the son is Jesus himself; the vineyard owner is God the Father.  The judgment on the tenants is a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem which was to happen within a generation (AD 70).

Jesus cites Psalm 118 concerning “the stone that the builders rejected.”  Clearly this stone is a reference to himself.  He is the foundation stone of the temple, rejected by the chief priests—who were, in fact, involved in a massive project of rebuilding the temple initiated by Herod the Great and completed about AD 66.

The chief priests were rebuilding the temple, but neither they nor Herod who initiated the project were properly authorized to undertake such a sacred task.  Herod was not even a Jew; he was an Edomite who gained the throne of Israel by collaboration with the Romans.  Likewise, the chief priests at this time did not have the proper lineage, and maintained their position and power by manipulation and cooperation with the Roman authorities.

It was the Son of David who was authorized to build the Temple of God (2 Sam 7:12-13).  So Jesus stands as the true temple-builder over against the false temple-builders. 

The Temple was decorated in its interior with garden imagery, which was intended to evoke the concept of Eden, the original garden-vineyard of God.  In fact, a great vine was carved on the gates of the Temple.  Some scholars surmise that Jesus was passing the Temple gates, with the great vine image, on the way to Gethsemane in John 15, where he begins his “True Vine” discourse: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower …”

By identifying Himself as the True Vine, Jesus is claiming to be the personal embodiment of Israel, the people of God.

At the end of today’s reading, Jesus warns the chief priests, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

This has sometimes been interpreted as the “Kingdom of God” being taken away from the Jews and given to the Gentiles, but there are serious reasons to doubt that such a meaning is intended here.  Jesus, his Blessed Mother, all the Apostles, and the writer of this Gospel were Jews.  Ethnic Jews have always been part of the New Covenant.  In fact, the New Covenant itself is nothing other than the Body and Blood of Jesus the Jew.

It would be better to understand the “people who will produce its fruit” not as the Gentiles per se, but as all those, whether “Jew or Greek” (cf. Rom 1:16), who partake in the Body and Blood of the True Vine, that is, the True Israel, Jesus the Christ, and by partaking become incorporated into the New Vineyard, the New Israel.  By partaking of the Eucharist, we “abide in him, and he in us”: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: